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Time for a re-examination at UW

Dec 6, 2013 - By Chris Peck

Well, that was short.

University of Wyoming President Bob Sternberg took office in July with great fanfare.

"We believe Dr. Sternberg is a great fit for the UW and Wyoming,'' gushed board of trustees President Dave Bostrom back when Sternberg was announced. "This is the most important decision we will make during our tenure on the board of Trustees.''

Oops.

Sternberg was pushed out of the job as UW President barely four months after starting the job -- by Bostrom and the UW trustees.

"UW might be the best fit for me as president,'' Sternberg said after news of his impending departure leaked out.

So how does that happen?

How does a university search all over the country to find the right guy for college president, give him a unanimous vote of confidence, then, less than half a year later, force the very talented guy out of his $425,00-a-year-job the job -- and the talented guy meekly agrees to go?

At one level, the answer is simply this: a bad fit that nobody could foresee.

But why couldn't anybody see it?

That's the question, going forward, for the University of Wyoming, and for future candidates for the UW presidency.

Let's get some realities on the table.

Reality one: Institutions and candidates don't always speak the truth to one another.

In this case, the good professor Sternberg probably wasn't wholly candid when he told the public that the first job of a college president is to develop strong relationships with faculty and staff.

That's what Sternberg said back in February when his hiring was announced.

He said it. He may even have believed it. But he couldn't do it.

Something of a revolt among seasoned administrators, deans and staff at UW precipitated Sternberg's hasty departure. Five UW administrators and three college deans left the university in just first 120 days of Sternberg's tenure. Not a sign of building strong relationships with faculty and staff.

The board of trustees didn't speak the whole truth, either.

The board said it truly, deeply wanted to lift up many programs at UW into "tier 1" status -- meaning best in the country.

The other side of that?

Lifting up departments goes hand in hand with pushing out some longtime academics. If the current leadership of various departments and schools was tier 1 caliber, they probably already would be there.

And that gets to another reality: At universities, the faculty rules.

It's not really a place where a hired president can simply go in and do what he wants. The rules and culture of college campuses essentially give faculty the power to make or break the president.

In this case, they broke him.

Perhaps because Sternberg wanted to do too much, too soon.

Perhaps because the faculty felt threatened by an outsider.

Perhaps because you put those two dynamics together, and neither side had the interpersonal skills to navigate the rough waters of change.

Nobody who cares about UW should be crowing about this outcome.

Running off a president after just four months on the job wasn't a good sign for the University of Wyoming.

Yes, the university may have cut its losses and stanched a wound. But there was bleeding here. The university took a shot. Good people will think twice now about taking on the job of college president in Laramie.

And the irony?

The next UW president will face the same challenges as the just departed one: potential cuts in student aid by the federal government, reduced state funding due to mineral tax declines, testy debates over merit pay, the need for better faculty and facilities in some areas, expense controls, and a lot more.

Time for the trustees, the faculty leadership, and the legislature to go back to the drawing board.

Everybody now has a chance to be more honest, more realistic, more open about what the UW presidency really entails, what the university is trying to be, and what skills are truly needed for a president to succeed.

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